19 June 2019

Liberia: Stressing the Urgency of Electoral Reform

editorial

The attention of the Daily Observer is drawn to a story carried in its June 18, 2019 edition headlined, NEC, Students Engage on Electoral Reform". According to the story written by contributor Samuka Konneh, students from various high schools were, over the weekend, engaged in debates centered around electoral reform. The debates were organized by the Youth Media Action with support from USAID.

The Daily Observer welcomes this development and highlights such as a wake-up call to the National Elections Commission to strengthen its civic education and awareness program on measures being undertaken to advance electoral reform. It is also a wake-up call to the National Legislature to speed up the passage of relevant legislations to enhance the reform process.

Of key concern to the Daily Observer is the conduct of the national census which is a constitutional requirement relevant to the conduct of democratic elections. Based on a review of current arrangements, this newspaper is of the view, supported by evidence that some counties are underrepresented at the national legislature, while others are over-represented.

Such anomalies can rightly be attributed that Electoral Districts currently in use are an aberration ushered into existence during the transitional period and maintained during the 2011 elections, are a source of much of the electoral disputes seen in recent time.

The trucking of voters from one area to the next, for example, is facilitated by the Electoral District arrangement, which has no population threshold unlike the constituency arrangement which has a defined population and does not lend easily to trucking arrangements.

According to Article 80 "c and d" of the Constitution of Liberia, elections are to be conducted on a constituency basis. It emphasizes that every citizen has the right to be registered in a constituency and that such citizen may change his constituency as may be prescribed by the Legislature.

Article c & d read as follows below:

(c): "Every Liberian citizen shall have the right to be registered in a constituency, and to vote in public elections only in the constituency where registered, either in person or by absentee ballot; provided that such citizen shall have the right to change his voting constituency as may be prescribed by the Legislature.

(d): Each constituency shall have an approximately equal population of 20,000, or such number of citizens as the legislature shall prescribe in keeping with population growth and movements as revealed by a national census; provided that the total number of electoral constituencies in the Republic shall not exceed one hundred.

It can be recalled that during the 2011 electoral period, several formal the requests from the National Elections Commission (NEC) to have the Legislature pass a new threshold limit for constituencies went unheeded in violation of Article 80 c & d of the Constitution. According to the Constitution, after the conduct of a national census, the country is to be divided into constituencies for planning and development purposes in addition to the holding of elections.

For example, according to the 2008 population and housing census, Bong county with a population of 333,481 is divided into six electoral districts with six representatives accordingly. However, based on the unrevised 20,000 threshold figure spelt out in the 1986 Constitution, Bong County should actually be apportioned into 16 Constituencies with a total of 16 representatives.

On the other hand, Nimba with a population figure of 462,026 should actually be apportioned into 23 constituencies as per the unrevised 20,000 threshold figure. Currently Nimba is divided into 7 electoral districts with no defined population figure, which suggests that Nimba, like Montserrado, is grossly underrepresented at the National Legislature.

The Daily Observer has previously pointed to these shortcomings as potential threats to the country's fledging democracy and should be addressed forthwith to forestall future conflicts over representation such as can be observed in clamorings for county status for Lower Bong.

The Daily Observer further notes that unscrupulous and greedy politicians are chiefly to blame for having maintained such an anomalous situation in 2010. Some key figures in the Legislature at the time argued that seats be assigned arbitrarily to counties with low population densities on grounds that those counties with low populations had most of their people residing in Monrovia who had migrated there in search of a better life.

As flawed as this formula was, Liberians were somehow forced to accept it. The opportunity to revise it came in 2011 in the aftermath of the 2008 national census but was conveniently ignored by President Sirleaf who was to later go to court to have referendum results annulled because her proposal to amend the absolute majority requirement was rejected.

But such actions had implications for the future and the 2017 elections showed just that. The 2017 Final Report of the European Union Election Observation Mission to Liberia (EUEOM) on the Presidential and House of Representatives elections, noted the following:

"A perceptible inequality of the vote emerged based on the numbers of registered voters per Electoral District for the 2017 House of Representatives elections. The political settlement from 2010 was perpetuated despite constitutional provisions for a regular revision of constituencies. Failure to address this issue will continue to contribute to a widening disparity in equality of the vote between counties and constituencies contrary to international standards".

In this regard, this newspaper reiterates its call to the National Legislature to realize the urgency of this matter and should accordingly move to address the issue of representation, which is inextricably linked to the conduct of a national census to enhance the apportioning of constituencies and thus, reduce the potential for conflict arising from concerns over adequate representation or the lack of it.

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